I think now, more than ever, it’s hard to tell what makes a “good picture.”
Photography, like all art, is subjective. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, etc, etc. And with Photoshop becoming such an integral part of the work process, it’s getting to the point where the old “rules” for good photography are being tossed out the window. I think that’s just fine, and I’ll tell you why.
Before I became the world-famous photographer that we all know and love, I was a Disc-Jockey. I worked in radio and nightclubs all over the country and was a firm believer in the “rules” that govern the trade (that’s right, there are rules). For example, when working a nightclub, you start with a song that has a low “beats per minute” count. Then, you mix into a song that’s a little faster, then another one faster still, until you eventually have reached a plateau and your dance floor is really dancing fast. Then, you drop back down to a slower song and start all over again. Your dancers wander over to the bar to get refreshed (cha-ching!).
At one point in my career I was hired to open a nightclub in Dallas and was having a meeting with the corporate DJ (yes, there is such a thing) and the other DJ who would be working the club with me. At one point during the meeting, the corporate guy made reference to the natural progression of the dance floor and the other jock said, “Why?”
At first I thought, “Oh my God, this guy doesn’t know how to spin.” I was wrong. He knew all the rules, he just didn’t believe they were always necessary. “Why can’t you jump all over the place with the music, as long as it works?” he asked. I thought he was nuts. That’s not the way it worked.
You can probably guess what happened next. We opened the club and I followed the rules while the other DJ went nuts, reacting to the crowd, trying new things, etc. It didn’t always work but when it did it was awesome … unlike any other club in town. Suddenly I was forced to realize that whatever works is the right thing. Our nightclub soon got a reputation as a “party place” because you never knew what would happen next, you just knew it would be fun and fresh. I quickly began to toss out the rules I had lived by for so long.
Whenever I find myself critiquing a photograph I remember that experience. It’s important to know the rules because they will help you take better pictures, but they are only a starting point. From there you must find your own way and develop a style that is unique to you. If that means that you blow-out the highlights or crop outside the grid … so be it. If your photography sells and is liked by your clients, then it’s good. Even if it’s not well received, it’s still yours. This is one of the reasons that I never participate in group critique on a photography website. I can’t tell you how to make your picture better, only how to make it more like something I took, which isn’t necessarily better!
Take my favorite pet peeve: Selective color. I’m not a fan. I think it is overused and almost always done poorly. I frequently get the impression that the photographer has done it simply because they can and it adds one more “creative” image to the mix. “Ohhh…. the picture is black and white but the flowers are in color!” That’s fine where the flowers are the focus of the shot but I see it so many times where the flowers are just a tiny part (my personal favorite is the full formal wedding party picture with just the flowers in color). But here’s the thing: I don’t make the rules. Just because I don’t like it doesn’t mean it’s “bad”… just that I don’t like it. Every great artist has been told that they were wrong to paint the way they did. “Selective Color” may be the next big thing for all I know.
My point to this whole rambling post is this: Don’t always follow the rules. Don’t always believe that everyone else knows more about what’s “good” than you do (unless it’s me because I am the bomb). And, be careful when you ask for advice because any critique you receive will be specific to that person’s personal style, not yours.